Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Dissociation and the Zone
Dr. Keith A Wilson

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       The Zone of Optimal Performance was the focus of the December, 1999 issue of Athletic Insight. Several questions were raised concerning what the zone is and how it works for different athletes. Most notably Sam Marye Lewis wrote about the Zone and cycling; he challenged the concept that being in the zone is fun and creates a high often known as "the runner's high."
       Lewis used the example of cyclists riding in the Tour de France and the grueling task they face. Lewis raised the question: is there is a different type of zone experience for endurance athletes? Lewis identified one of the clues to help understand this different zone of endurance. Hypnotic susceptibility is the key.
       When one is able to move into a zone of deep focus though natural hypnotic means, it allows the athlete to utilize other properties of hypnosis to enhance the zone experience. One of the critical related properties of hypnosis is dissociation. Hypnotizability and dissociation are linked to each other and yet dissociation is little understood in the athletic community.
       Dissociation is often described as the ability to pull away from pain or unpleasant experiences. This is the skill we use when we first start exercising and the exercise feels either painful or boring. We let our mind wander to last year's vacation or which new sports car we are going to buy. It works pretty well as we focus on the kind of wheels we want on our new car. The next thing you know the painful experience is over and you have succeeded in your athletic task.
       However, there is more to know about dissociation and how it interacts with the zone of optimal performance. Dissociation is a naturally occurring primitive defense mechanism which most people possess. It is the skill that gets used and is highly developed when dealing with overwhelming trauma in life. When abuse occurs to a child, he uses the defense of dissociation to pull away from the pain and abusive experience because it is the only tool for escape that most children have under those conditions.
       Colin Ross' research with the DES, the Dissociative Experiences Scale, (Ross, Joshi, & Currie, 1991) shows that dissociative skills occur in most people in the population. The most prevalent dissociative skill is absorption. Absorption is the ability to block out all internal and external distractions such as one does while watching a good movie in a quality theater. This helps explain why hypnotizable athletes can probably move into the zone more quickly. This connection between hypnotizabilty and dissociation's property of absorption is primary to entering the zone with greater ease.
       There are three components to dissociation which help us understand the pain and suffering that cyclists are able to endure. First is the component of absorption. Absorption allows an athlete to be so focused that they are able to block out all other distractions which would hinder performance. Since they are so focused on the external environment and not dealing with strategic thoughts in their mind they also experience the phenomenon that time is moving slower. (Nideffer, 1999) Pain is often modulated in this state because the athlete is not paying attention to the pain signals in the brain. Pain is more likely to be felt when the absorbed state is interrupted by some sort of crisis on the course that calls for the cyclist to respond to different environmental stimuli.
       The second skill has been noted above: depersonalization is the ability to pull away from a painful experience. This skill works well during trauma, e.g. childhood abuse, or other overwhelming circumstances. When one needs to be in an altered state in order to survive long periods of pain or suffering, depersonalization is a valuable technique. This is the state the cyclist moves into for long periods of time in order to shut off the experience of intense suffering and pain. The problem with depersonalization for an athlete is it is harder to switch to full alertness for strategic thinking while in the dissociative state. This may lead to mistakes in performance due to not responding to challenges on the course (external stimuli) or in one's mind (internal stimuli).
       The third component of dissociation is amnesia. Amnesia is very helpful because the athlete can forget or block out how much pain they're in while participating in a grueling athletic activity. Amnesia can be present during competition and also diminishes recollection of the pain's intensity. With this amnesia factor the cyclist is more likely to return to the bike time and again because the pain is not remembered as being that bad.
       These three components of dissociation help us to understand why a cyclist can survive a seven hour ride of pain and suffering and still have the feeling that they are in control of this athletic experience. When one is in the zone using these dissociative skills, it will not produce the "runner's high" but a feeling of satisfaction is created. The athlete has completed a grueling feat which is a different feeling but still very satisfying.
       Lewis writes that one of the key traits to this success of the cycling zone is hypnotic susceptibility. As demonstrated above there is a strong connection between hypnotic susceptibility and dissociative skills. However, what has not been mentioned is how to use hypnotic skills to enhance their hypnotic susceptibility and the benefits of dissociation in endurance competition.
       Performance Hypnosis can assist the athlete in creating the ability to use their hypnotic susceptibility to greater fruition. In three articles currently on the website (Wilson, 2000), I illustrate these skills: 1) dynamic relaxation, 2) fractionation and 3) glove anesthesia as hypnotic skills which can improve the athlete's ability to more fully utilize their hypnotic susceptibility. Without Performance Hypnosis training, the athlete is left to create his own links and triggers to the zone. In contrast, the athlete who learns the skills of Performance Hypnosis has more control of the actions necessary to move into the dissociative zone necessary for endurance athletic events.

Dr. Keith Wilson is a psychotherapist and performance consultant in El Paso, Texas. He has worked in the dissociative disorder field for ten years. He works with different sports teams and individual athletes in El Paso. He is certified in clinical hypnosis by the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis. He can be reached at [email protected] or 4625 Alabama St., El Paso, Texas. 79930

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